Nancy Anderson Dolan weighed 300 pounds at the age of 30 in 1989. And it wasn’t because she had eaten a few too many French fries or had a thyroid problem. Dolan suffered from binge eating disorder — an eating disorder that affects more people per year than any other.
"I would turn on the TV and eat and eat and eat literally until three in the morning," Dolan said.
Binge eating disorder — or BED — as it is commonly called, is characterized by consistent episodes of compulsive eating even when a feeling of hunger no longer exists. People with BED relate to food on an emotional level rather than a physical one.
In the midst of a binge, Dolan never considered whether she was full.
Instead, Dolan would wonder, “Am I OK now? Can I stop? Do I feel safe? Do I feel comforted?”
In a national survey on eating disorders conducted between 2001 and 2003, 5.5 percent of the participants reported having binge eating disorder at some point in their lives, while only 2 percent and 1.2 percent of people reported battling bulimia and anorexia, respectively. And while anorexia and bulimia patients are predominantly women, males account for nearly half of all BED sufferers, thus adding to the prevalence of the disorder.
Dr. Sari Shepphird, an eating disorder specialist based in Los Angeles, explained that binge eating disorder may also be the most common of all eating disorders “because it does not involve uncomfortable and unwanted compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, starvation, and laxative abuse, as we find in other eating disorders.”
People with BED also go to great lengths to hide their binges — enabling many sufferers to battle the disease in secret.
"There’s such secretive behaviors around it," Dolan said. "Like, making strange combinations of food that nobody would care if it was there or not. Taking a package apart and making it look like brand new by rearranging the food. And just lots of care taken into hiding it so that I wouldn’t get found out."
Dolan claimed she had her first binge when she was just 3 years old. By the sixth grade she was noticeably overweight and by age 13 she had already tried and failed a commercial weight loss program.
About 10 to 30 percent of overweight people suffer from binge eating disorder, Shepphird estimated. But while weight gain is often a symptom of the condition, it is important to note that there are deep psychological problems associated with the disease — it isn’t merely a pattern of poor eating habits. People with BED often loathe their self image and want to be thinner, but are simultaneously obsessed with the thought of food.
"There was not a minute of time where I was not thinking about the food," Dolan said. "I was either thinking about what I was going to eat, what I was not going to eat, how I had eaten."
Shepphird said the difference between binge eating and overeating, is that a binge eater will have a sense of compulsion before the binge, and often does it in secret, whereas an overeater simply continues to eat at one meal. Also, the binge eater can consume up to 10,000 calories at one sitting.
"I had food in my pockets all the time," Dolan said. "I almost crashed my car because some of the food fell on the floor and without thinking, I put my (hand) on the floor to find the food.
By the time she reached 300 pounds, Dolan had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, high blood pressure and chronic fatigue syndrome. As her physical health deteriorated, she also grew more depressed and isolated from the world around her. More than 20 years went by before Dolan realized she couldn’t be helped by the latest weight-loss plan — it was time to seek psychological help.
Although it took three years, countless hours of therapy sessions and many group meetings, Dolan was eventually able to stop bingeing and start leading a healthy lifestyle. At 5-feet, 7-inches tall, she now weighs 158 pounds and is the mother of two sons. Because of her experience with binge eating, she now works as an eating disorder specialist to help others overcome the condition.
Dolan admitted she sometimes experiences a desire to binge, but she now knows how to cope with such urges.
"If I have that binge feeling, or there’s any kind of behavior like that, then I know there’s something going on that I have to address," she said.